Coffee cupping is a process by which individual coffees can be analysed. It is a process which requires minimal equipment, is easily repeatable and requires little skill to perform (although identifying the more subtle flavours and characteristics does require experience and knowledge). The coffee industry uses cupping for a number of reasons and it is a process which is utilised at every stage from producer through to roaster and even some coffee shops.
In this article I’m going to take a look at the coffee value chain and share some examples of how cupping is used to ensure the quality of the coffee you receive. If you want to learn more about the process itself we made a video to explain it further, which you can view here.
Cupping at Origin – The Cup of Excellence
For a coffee to be classed as ‘Specialty’, it requires a score of 80 points or more out of 100. The various attributes of a coffee such as acidity, body and sweetness are each given a score out of 10 and then an overall score for the coffee determined. This type of cupping requires a lot of skill and experience. There is a Q grader course and exam which can be undertaken for those wishing to excel in this area.
This scoring approach is used whenever Cup of Excellence competitions are held. Based at origin, these are highly prestigious events, with coffees evaluated by a panel of international judges (in 2020 due to lockdown restrictions the competitions have been virtual with samples sent to judges). After many rounds of judging the top 30, top 10 and winning coffees are identified. These are then sent to auction with huge prizes paid for the winning coffees. The winning coffee at the 2020 Ethiopia Cup of Excellence sold for $185 per lb (scoring 91.04 points).
While we are unlikely to be in a position to buy a coffee as expensive as this, we did manage to buy 60kg of the 19th placed coffee which scored a respectable 87.79 points.
We rarely cup coffees to this extent as we purchase our green beans from a coffee broker. This means all the coffees presented to us will have been scored as being specialty by a team of people, all of whom are Q graders. Who am I to argue with that! That just means we only have to pick our favourite coffees!
Cupping by Coffee Brokers – Analysing Samples
The beauty of coffee cupping is that it requires only a small amount of each coffee, just 12g. This allows samples to be tested at all stages of the value chain from producer to roaster. Coffee cupping will be used by producers to check the quality of their harvests and it will also be used at origin by exporters and importers when making buying decisions.
Once a shipment has left origin, samples will be sent to a broker so they get an idea of the quality of the coffee as it began its journey to the UK, and they can compare this with the quality they expected when the coffee was purchased. Similarly once a coffee has landed in this country a broker will check a further sample to ensure the landed quality is as expected.
A coffees journey from origin is fraught with challenge. Many coffees have to make challenging overland journeys to the nearest available port, in tropical conditions. They can be subject to delays before being loaded onto a ship and it is not uncommon for some coffees to follow a very roundabout route to the UK as the shipping containers stop at various ports along the way.
On numerous occasions I have received a phone call from our coffee broker breaking the news that the coffee I expected had failed their QC once it landed in the UK. We won’t be under obligation to buy this coffee and we can look at alternatives which have landed at the quality we need. We might miss out on a coffee one season, but this insurance policy is one of the reasons we work so closely with a single coffee broker.
The Roaster – Analysing Roasts
When we receive a new coffee we need to decide on how we are going to roast it. Essentially this is about controlling heat applied to the beans over time. We call this a roast profile. Even if we’ve used a coffee before, seasonal variations can change its roast profile, as well as its character and flavour.
Once we’ve decided how we’re going to roast the coffee we’ll produce a test batch which we’ll cup over a number of days to see how the flavour and character evolves. Sometimes nailing down a roast profile comes easy and that first roast will need no alterations. Sometimes we can run two or three batches before we are happy.
We have a policy of not selling roasts we are unhappy with and once a roast profile has been determined we won’t deviate from it. This approach ensures we maintain a high standard across all our coffees and also ensures consistency from batch to batch.
There are times when we feel a coffee is really good but one more test batch will allow us to make it even better. Commercial viability sometimes prevents us going too far. Each batch costs money and there comes a point when we need to commit to selling the coffee, or risk not making enough profit! We never waste those early batches. They are never undrinkable, just don’t meet our high standards so we give the coffee away to volunteers at a local charity.
Going back to that Ethiopian Cup of Excellence we purchased, we only have 30kg of it in total. At the price we paid for those green beans there is no opportunity for a test batch, it would be just too expensive. That’s a whole heap of pressure on our coffee roaster, Angharad.
The Coffee Shop – Selecting Coffees
There has been a growing trend in recent years for ‘guest coffees’ within the industry. In some instances coffee shops will serve their main coffee alongside a rotating selection of guest coffees. At the other extreme some coffee shops rotate all their coffees.
While some coffee shops will brew samples of coffees to determine which ones to guest, others will cup samples side by side before making a buying decision. I tend to feel that cupping at this stage needs to be approached with caution, or at least utilised in tandem with other brewing methods. The sensory experience of a coffee during the cupping process can sometimes be very different from the actual drinking experience of the same coffee. During the cupping process, for example, the analysis of the samples will not start until 10 minutes after brewing, and continue until the coffee is tending towards room temperature. The coffee will be likely be much cooler than that being consumed by a customer in a coffee shop and therefore the experience will likely be different. Sweetness, for example, becomes more apparent as the temperature of the coffee tends towards 37ºC (100ºF).
We are very much aware of this when deciding on flavour notes for the front of our coffee bags. We generally decide on flavour notes based upon brewed batches of the coffee rather than on cupped samples. In this way we believe those descriptors will better match the experience of the end user. We often cup the coffee at the same time which can be useful if we are unsure of which flavours to choose, or if there is debate amongst the team.
Developing Your Understanding of Coffee at Home
The world of coffee continues to capture the imagination of the end consumer and it is a trend which is unlikely to slow down. Many are now engaging in cupping coffees at home to gain a deeper insight into the world of coffee, especially at the specialty grade. Lockdown has given many consumers and coffee roasters the opportunity to connect like never before, and the use of video technology is allowing us to enhance these experiences.
At the end of 2020 we introduced a new membership club called the Roaster’s Table. The aim of the membership is to bring consumers closer to the roasting process in much the same way that a chef’s table brings diners closer to the cooking process. Each month we focus on a couple of coffees and we produce a video which walks members through the cupping process. Over time we will use the monthly cupping to focus on various aspects of the roasting, from choosing and buying green beans through to the roasting itself. We also hope to move to live-streaming events in the near future. If you would like to find out more about our Roaster’s Table and the additional benefits we offer, please follow this link
Gareth Kimble is the founder and co owner of Carvetii Coffee